2013.05.16

3D Printed Cookie Cutters

You loved Printing Violations, and you tolerated Printing Violations (Part II), so we’re back again with another episode of Printing Violations, this time looking more closely at the health issues surrounding 3D printed cookie cutters.

Licensing issues are one thing, but there is a safety concern with 3D printed cookie cutters. Here’s a look at some of the issues. (All assume you are using a home 3D printer like a MakerBot, RepRap, Printrbot, etc.)

Is ABS or PLA plastic filament food-safe?
The answers range from “probably not” to “maybe” in most cases. If you use natural filament it will be free of coloring agents, which is a step in the right direction, but unless you are specifically buying “food-safe filament” don’t expect it to be food-safe. (Keep in mind that “food-safe” is something that will be determined by local health departments, and will vary depending on where you live.)

Then there’s the printer itself, and the environment it runs in. My printer lives in a basement where I do other crazy things like run a drill press, spray glue and paint, and generally make a mess. Would you want your cookie cutter manufactured in such an environment? What has the filament come into contact with before it goes into the machine, and what else has been introduced into the extruder as far as foreign materials? If you’ve ever read up on what it takes to make food in your home and sell it commercially, you’ll have some idea of the restrictions involved. (Wait, we aren’t selling food, right? We’ll get to that, be patient!)

Can 3D printed items be treated to be safe(er?)
If you’ve ever looked at a 3D printed object, you may notice the ridges. Since it’s built up layer upon layer, there are spaces into which food could get stuck. Of course you can try to clean your 3D printed cookie cutter, but don’t put it in the dishwasher! For PLA prints, the heat will either melt it, or deform it, or do some other nasty thing to it. ABS may be better, but you will still need to heat it enough to sterilize it, and hope you can get the crevices clean. It’s been suggested that acetone vapor finishing might be helpful. Helpful enough? Not sure.

Of course you could use your printer to make a mold and then make a food-safe cutter out of another material, but that’s not really a 3D printed cookie cutter. You could also try to coat your printed piece with a food-safe coating, but that’s a lot more work.

So why does all this matter? Because right now, there are people printing cookie cutters and selling them, and there are also people 3D printing cookie cutters, making cookies with them, and selling the cookies.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I love cookies. OK, with that out of the way…)

As mentioned, selling food you make yourself is regulated in most areas, and if you want to start up a business baking in your kitchen and selling the goods, you’re in for a lot of work. I know, I know, it’s all in the name of safety for the public, but there’s a crap-ton of regulations and rules you’ll need to follow. Many places require you to have a kitchen physically separated from your home. As usual, I am not a lawyer, I’ve just done a bit of research. From a maker perspective, we just want to make things! From a public health perspective, let’s try not to make anyone sick, okay?

And yes, I have indeed used 3D printed cookie cutters to make cookies (at least twice) and then gave those cookies to people to eat. No one died yet (that I know of.) I didn’t attempt to re-use the cutters though, so they were a one-time use item, which is probably safer than trying to clean them.

Advice: If you’re going to 3D print cookie cutters, use them only once!

Let’s say you create custom 3D printed cookie cutters and sell them on Etsy or some other site, you should probably include a disclaimer that they should be used only once, since cleaning them is an issue. (Safer yet, tell people they are NOT food-safe, and let them decide if they want to use them. Again, I am no lawyer! Consult your own lawyer!)

Now, as for 3D printing cookie cutters, and then using them to make cookies and sell the cookies, well… This may be worse, since you’re selling actual food that has been created using materials that are questionable as far as being food-safe. Once again, I am no lawyer, but you may need one after selling those cookies.

In conclusion, be safe, people. Many folks are fine with the idea that a piece of ABS plastic touches cookie dough for a second or two before it’s baked at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, and others are convinced it’s insane to do such a thing. As with everything, there’s probably some middle ground.

Thanks for reading this, and keep making cookies!

(Big thanks to all the G+ers who helped me out with this. See the thread for more info.)

2 Responses to “Printing Violations (Part III)”

  1. Nigel AllenNo Gravatar says:

    Is cutting food with something like ABS and PLA different to storing in a container made of these products where they are touching for extended periods of time, ie leaching.

  2. Cutting would be a very short process compared to storing, though if it’s hot food there may be an issue as the plastic would be heated a bit. There is of course, plastic cutlery, though I am not sure what plastics are used for it. And of course, you’ll want to dispose of it rather than attempt to clean it.

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